This Frances Williams was a product of the dramatics program at Cleveland’s Playhouse Settlement, originally known as the Dumas Dramatics Club, then the Gilpin Players (after Charles Gilpin) and finally Karamu House, which still operates under that name. Langston Hughes was very involved with this company during his time in Cleveland and afterwards. Williams started with the company as a child, acting, directing, writing plays, and creating costumes and sets over a period of 14 years. In 1934 she went to Europe, studying theate in the Soviet Union for two years, followed by a year in Finland.
Williams began her professional career in the U.S. in 1939. Around that time, she understudied Ethel Waters in Mamba’s Daughters, toured as Rheba in the road comapny of You Can’t Take it With You, became involved in the Negro Actor’s Guild, and appeared in the Oscar Micheaux films Lying Lips (1939) and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940). In 1946 she began appearing in Hollywood films in supporting roles, the most notable of which include Show Boat (1951) and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). In 1960 she went into the cast of Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in the role of Lena.
A committed leftist, much of her time was spent on union organizing and similar activities starting in the 1950s, along with Paul Robeson and others, and for nearly a decade she lived in Mexico. In 1954 she worked as an assistant director and production associate on the film Salt of the Earth. She was in the original 1966 film The Black Klansman. Starting in the mid 1970s her screen career kicked into high gear, and she worked constantly for two decades until her death. Among other things, she was in the films Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes (1974) with Frank DeKova and Paul Harris, Switchblade Sisters (1975), Sidney Poitier’s A Piece of the Action (1977), The Jerk (1978 — as Steve Martin’s grandmother!) and Robert Downey Sr’s Rented Lips (1987). Her many TV movies included King with Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson and A Woman Called Moses, with Tyson (both in 1978), The Ambush Murders, and Maya Angelou’s Sister, Sister (both 1982), and Hell Town (1985) with Robert Blake. Williams was a regular on Frank’s Place (1987-88) with Tim Reid, and also appeared on such shows as The Waltons, Police Story, Little House on the Prairie, Hill Street Blues, Amen, and Designing Women.